Hun 13, 2016

Intertexts for Ashbery’s “These Lacustrine Cities”

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That Escher up (or below or across) there reminds me of Borges's structure in "The Immortal," doors and stairs of timeless design and symmetry but often leading nowhere. Doors and stairs don't have to be practical features if you're building from the point-of-view of immortality. The builders sleep outside* that magnificent useless structure. As "The Immortal" seems to be Homer, this also presents an "idea" of literature as vision and enterprise.


Thought of pairing Auden's lines with those from Ashbery. An exercise that not everyone might find agreeable:
Lakes × These Lacustrine Cities
Lake-folk require no fiend to keep them on their toes;
They are the product of an idea: that man is horrible, for instance,   
They leave aggression to ill-bred romantics
Who duel with their shadows over blasted heaths:
Into something forgetful, although angry with history.
A month in a lacustrine atmosphere
Would find the fluvial rivals waltzing not exchanging
The rhyming insults of their great-great-uncles.
Much of your time has been occupied by creative games
No wonder Christendom did not get really started
Till, scarred by torture, white from caves and jails,
Her pensive chiefs converged on the Ascanian Lake
We had thought, for instance, of sending you to the middle of the desert,
To a violent sea, or of having the closeness of the others be air   
And by that stork-infested shore invented
To you, pressing you back into a startled dream
The life of Godhead, making catholic the figure
Of three small fishes in a triangle.
You have built a mountain of something,Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument,   
Sounded out each of Auden's lines and looked for the closest resonance from those of Ashbery. I think Auden is more given to narrative, to a clear exposition of cause and effect. 

This is a unique topic for poetry (though not for anthropology): the features and beliefs of people as they develop communities alongside (or atop, astride) lakes. I think "Lacustrine" is a formal response to Auden's "Lakes". Auden looks at lake-folk with their chiefs and rhyming great-great-uncles. He won't rhyme as they used to, he's leaving that, he'll sing in another way though of course cognizant of the source, inseparable from it. Ashbery's uncle is Auden, and he's responding with "cities," with the sound of cities, with pieces of effects and causes that might seem to stray, even fight, wondering how they could be sitting side-by-side, this apartment and that studio, but still somehow cohere in one pulsing view.

If in Auden's view God is "invented," in Ashbery what we have is a "startled dream" and you'd have to get pressed back into it if you're going to make your own mountain of something.


These two together reminds me of "Ozymandias":
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
Dali then, and his wonderful sand. No hope, maybe, but some regeneration is achieved in the constructs of the poet. The idea is derived from shambles. But I've yet to know of a civilization that was one idea. I imagine a main idea, a mythology, and then digressions and transgressions come from and go against and (sometimes) come back into it, reshaping it and the society it's supposed to have brought into being.


Recalling Hobbes's Leviathan, the idea we need a state because we'd be at each other's throats without something like a government to keep us in line.


Or, if a city, then a mountain of garbage? The poet is figured to be attuned to his culture and history, to chunks of it anyway (perhaps synced differently from others because of intense attention). And I'm thinking that yes, the last stanza in particular points in the direction of that poet building from the rubble. And of course, this solitary one:
But the past is already here, and you are nursing some private project.

I'm taking Guest's lines for myself, putting them right beside "Lacustrine":

The siege made cloth a transfer
learned from invaders who craved it;
spindle thieves. 
She sang high notes and pebbles went into her 
work where it changed into marks; in that room
Burning, until all that hate was transformed into useless love.
I'm grateful to have been returned to this poem, to find that I read some of it very differently. The "useless love" here, for example, seems to me something of high value. It's a way of re-figuring "unconditional love," where even one of the most basic conditions—usefulness of the love, of lover and beloved—has been discarded.


Yes to your implication. Hate your friends, said Nietzsche. Healthy stuff. But here's another angle: love that doesn't bear children. I've been trying to play this reading out with the rest of the poem, but it unlocks something and turns the whole thing into a series of sexual positions. It's like there's a hidden slideshow, and it ends in tears.

If I'm to be a responsible academic and connect it with the rest of the readings, I'd say that habitations could be "forced" toward the path of citihood, the teepees crushed underhoof. Loathing, pillage, rape.

Celibacy's another angle. I think it was Leonard Shlain who said the middle ages was something of a eugenics disaster for Europe, attracting the best and the brightest to don habits and cassocks, most of these thinkers institutionally kept from the possibility of progeny.

Then you are left with an idea of yourself
And the feeling of ascending emptiness of the afternoon
Which must be charged to the embarrassment of others
Who fly by you like beacons.
And "charged" makes another appearance, in something of a similar airy movement, but "charged" with (perhaps) a different sense. Sounds monetary, "charge this call to." The "I" here seems to be at rest, or in some state of stillness, while it's others that do movement, that transmit "like beacons". Others, and that distinct feeling in the second line, which perhaps would eventually lead to transcendence... but transcending toward... what? Something other than civilization?


That's worth re-posting and seconding. Indeed a gift, and I'm glad the rules say she must keep on giving! Paraphrasing her remark, these lacustrine observations elevate my own. For instance, she turned us to the plurality in the title and how the poem somehow specifies, zeroing in on a certain You. I don't have anything to add to that, except that yes, it's really got me to thinking more about the scope of this poem, something I hadn't thought of even thinking about before. Here's a thought regarding that from Calvino's Invisible Cities, published some six years after Rivers:
And Polo answers, "Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name."

It's this precisely. And my experience with Ashbery is that no matter how many times I read a poem of his (and what eloquent, keen, sometimes playful notions we bring from/to it), the poem remains an unpossessed place. And... odd, but I find this so reassuring.


My mother used to starch handkerchiefs and shirt collars for my father. It makes for crisp fabric. It marks formality, serious business. There's something even more serious, it's from the urban dictionary, really makes that connection with desire, but it might not have been applicable back in 1963 or 66. There are others that relate to being intoxicated, knocked out, or drugged. I'm not sure about these though.


Stepping back (but I think I'd still be along these trajectories) to test a couple of things:
Whose wind is desire starching a petal,
Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.
There's something oddly familiar about how this line was done, and if you saw the airport control tower in the second stanza, maybe you'll consider "starching a petal" as something akin to gilding the lily. In fact, if we go full Shakespeare (a nod to you), Salisbury will also reward us with the "rainbow":
Therefore, to be possess'd with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

So John's dipping back into King John, those last three lines getting us "tapering, branches / Burning," and... let's just do the whole thing:

Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Into the past for swans and tapering branches, / Burning
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
until all that hate was transformed into useless love.
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

The cities are "doubling" the "pomp" of the lake, adding beauty to beauty only wastes it ("embalm" and "entomb" was, I think, inspired). This is the classic problem of art, of literature. Perhaps Ashbery is touching upon the limits of mimesis as the measure of the poem. Don't go sending it to the middle of the desert to record things for you. The poem now its own "private project" which is something "no climate can outsmart" because, maybe, it is its own climate, its own body of water.

Starch is the byproduct of plants. Pure starch is a product of people refining what they found in nature. "Gilding the lily" is extended by "starching a petal" because you return to the plant something that's been extracted from it, now in tampered (or refined) form, perhaps enhancing the plant, maybe clogging up its pores and stiffening it.

If desire starching a petal is in any way like gilding the lily, then maybe this is a development "useless love". Love's not only useless, it's become a method of negating use, of killing (by giving back more of the same in adulterated form), and thus could be judged "horrible" if not loathsome or hateful.

Itself, the city is a crime of passion.


Two thoughts about this. First is Wilde's, 
Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Which will end in—
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.
Perhaps you kill to preserve (the love, the beloved)... but is there any other way? If your answer is poetry, then maybe that poetry isn't potent enough.

The second comes from Noah. Those are tears of disappointment, the melancholy wrath of the Godhead (these lakes but remnants of that magnificent flood). It's an eternal agreement signed with rainbow flourish. This stops now, dear, I won't drown you again.

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